At a recent DMLA panel I organized, Craig Peters, COO of Getty Images, pointed out that the vast majority of image consumption happens in places where images are not licensed. Which is true: People spend more time on various social media sites than anywhere else. Just Snapchat ( 8,796 photos shared per second), Whatsapp (8,102 Photos shared per second), Instagram (810 photos per second), Flickr (41 photos per second), Pinterest ( 1,388 per second) and giant Facebook (208,300 per second), have numbers that are astronomic. Add Tumblr, WordPress, Medium and other self-publishing platforms and the numbers just explode. The painful truth is that for all of these platforms, the vast majority of the images published are not licensed from any photo agencies or independent photographers.
Put together, the daily production of social media far outweighs the total the sum of all stock photo agencies collections, combined. Instagram, for example, generates more new images in 24 hours than the whole collection of Shutterstock. It would be impossible for anyone to satisfy such a demand volume and quite frankly, somewhat presumptuous. It is well understood that a great percentage of these photos are of high personal value (and interest) and could not be replicated in any photo studio, regardless of the photographer’s talent. But that is not the point here. Rather, it is to demonstrate the rise and dominance of a new marketplace for photo licensors: The self-publisher. From social media to website publishing and blogging tools, individuals have been empowered to be just one click away from publishing content. Everyone is a potential image buyer. Question is: How do you reach them?
Along with that question is how do you recalibrate a behavior of sharing (free) into a purchasing decision (licensing), if at all? Past attempts to capture what was then misnamed “the consumer market” have all failed. Primarily because of a misconception of value. Consumers are at the tail end of a product’s life, at the stage when it is absorbed and destroyed. Trying to sell or license an image to be consumed made as much sense as trying to do the same with air. It is highly replicable (there is no limit on how many times we can reproduce an image), instantaneous ( we process images under 0.25 of a second), and unlike air, not even indispensable. However, if the image is used to get others’ attention ( which is one of the strongest appeals of photos), then the value proposition becomes valid. For my website, for my blog, for my social media, if I can trade-in my dollars for an increase in visibility, then I am willing to pay for images. The same thought process that photographers and photo agencies have always used to license photos to professional image buyers. But this time, applied to an individual unit, the self-publishers.
While it might be the same value proposition, the methods are not similar. While Microstock has certainly shown that by dramatically cutting licensing fees and restrictions, the marketplace could be extended, it has now reached its limits. No one goes to Shutterstock or Istock to license an image for his/her social media feed. So what is the answer? One interesting option is what we have seen in the likes of companies like Canva or Placeit. Those companies offer a service first (online graphic tools for one, easy embedding for the other) with image licensing being a secondary, almost invisible step. What is sold here is the service of enhancing and personalizing content, not the content. The value proposition is displaced but it still results in licensing content. Shutterstock has been experimenting with a similar solution, just recently released from beta.
The many to many world
Another, of course, is the vastly covered advertising revenue. Companies like Stipple in the past and maybe Getty Images in the future have reversed the traditional photo agency/publisher model by placing advertising on content and splitting the revenue. No upfront licensing cost up and the possibility to generate income far greater than any standard rate applied today. But this model has its drawbacks. Not all photos published will get millions of views necessary to generate substantial advertising revenue. In fact, the majority of images will experience a pitiful public life with a pathetic number of views, resulting in disappointment for all involved. While this model works well with viral images, or with large publishers, it is ineffective in the long tail and the self-publishing market.
The challenge for the photo industry is that it can no longer ignore this market. And while it increasing exponentially in volume, it is also extremely fragmented. Unlike the traditional model of licensing content to publishers or advertisers with millions of views, the model here is reversed: millions of publishers with just a few hundred or thousands views each. Obviously, the traditional model has to change and adapt. But treating each self-publisher like a micro version of an enterprise client will not work. Content, pricing, and availability being the main reasons.
Another solution, which has shown healthy results and is already implemented by Shutterstock, Getty and Adobe, is the deep integration in associated products or services. For example, by partnering with 1and1, a leading website building platform, iStock is able to directly license content to individuals in the process of designing their websites, without ever leaving 1and1. Thus reaching the self-publishers at the point of decision, rather than trying to lure him to the iStock website. Another example is Shutterstock and its integration within the Facebook advertising platform. Buyers here can include Shutterstock images without ever leaving the process of building their ads. If Facebook would extend this to every user of its platform, Shutterstock would become the beneficiary of the biggest self-publisher client base in the world.
In editorial, the numbers of publishers are decreasing while rates are falling. In Commercial, while the market is still healthy, it is not only getting saturated but it is also being challenged by influencer marketing, free photos, as well as intense rivalry between Adobe, Shutterstock and Getty. While no public estimate exists on the size of the self-publisher opportunity, it is clear, just from the amount of photos shared online, that the potential is massive. It is also, by all estimates, key to the survival of the stock photo industry. Remains to solve the biggest hurdle: how to capture it?
Photo by Janitors